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DeKalb fires 2, demotes 2 over sales of books written by administrators

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DeKalb County’s top school official is firing two principals and demoting two other officials after an internal investigation found school funds were used to purchase thousands of dollars worth of books that school administrators had written. The personnel moves came in response to an investigation into the book sales by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

All told, the school system found three educators-turned-authors raked in a total of almost $100,000 in sales to district schools. One principal used her school’s funds to buy more than $11,000 worth of copies of her own book.

Interim Superintendent Ramona Tyson said the investigation uncovered a misuse of school funds that was “alarming,” “disturbing” and “unethical.”

In addition to the firings and demotions, Tyson outlined policy recommendations to the school board so the problem won’t happen again.

The AJC first wrote about the bulk book purchases on July 25, when it reported Assistant Superintendent Ralph Simpson had sold more than $15,000 in books to the district.

Through further investigation, the AJC recently found two more school officials had done the same thing. As the AJC was investigating those cases, Tyson took action.

“As the information started unfolding and the dollar amounts started to appear, for me, it was disappointing,” Tyson said in an interview Thursday.

In each case, the school official wrote books — one of them wrote three — and got schools’ funds for bulk purchases of their books, turning public money into personal profit.

Tyson said two sisters, both of them principals, are losing their jobs, while two others are being demoted to assistant principal positions. Both are on paid leave and are entitled to a tribunal hearing that could uphold or reverse the terminations.

She credited the AJC with bringing the purchases to light.

“Because of your work to bring it to the district, it has placed me in a position to do the best thing and the right thing for the district to address it,” Tyson said.

The two fired principals, however, say the school district knew about the book purchases for years and did not consider them inappropriate until reporters recently asked questions.

Tyson was appointed to her position in February, shortly after county district attorney investigators searched the home of then-Superintendent Crawford Lewis. In May, Lewis and three others were indicted on criminal charges relating to alleged misuse of school construction funds. They await trial.

In addition to the personnel moves, Tyson is proposing the school board establish a conflict of interest policy that would prohibit school district employees from selling goods or services to the district.

District officials said those punished include:

● Yvonne Sanders-Butler, a “principal on assignment” filling in for schools with principal vacancies. She is being terminated from her $105,615 annual salary position. Between 2002 and 2009, she sold $63,184 worth of copies of three health and nutrition books she has written — $11,494 of which she authorized herself while serving as principal at Browns Mill Elementary School.

● Sanders-Butler’s sister, Rainbow Elementary School Principal Annette S. Roberts. She also is being fired because she refused a demotion to assistant principal. She purchased $14,184 worth of copies of her sister’s books for Rainbow.

● Simpson and Miller Grove High School Principal Selina Carol Thedford. They were demoted to assistant principals and had their salaries cut. Simpson wrote an autobiography, titled “From Remedial To Remarkable.” He sold $15,260 worth of copies to six DeKalb schools. Thedford purchased $9,680 worth.

The district cut Simpson’s salary from $115,405 to $89,599, and Thedford’s from $105,615 to $93,168, district Chief of Staff Alice Thompson said.

Tyson said Simpson agreed to pay back $11,800 of his book sales revenue.

“Dr. Simpson ... has owned the responsibility and the importance of assuring that the taxpayer dollars come back to the district,” Tyson said. “I accept what he has offered.”

● Former Assistant Superintendent Lonnie Edwards, who wrote “A Teacher’s Touch: Reaching Beyond Boundaries,” about mentoring a disabled student. He sold $12,745 worth of copies to the district while employed there. He also sold $3,424 worth of copies after he left. Edwards now works as the superintendent of the school system in Jackson, Miss.

Thedford and Simpson could not be reached for comment. Edwards declined to comment.

Sanders-Butler, reached by phone on Friday afternoon, said the district’s chief financial officer, Marcus Turk, approached her in 2007 about the book sales. He told her that “it didn’t look right,” but the district did not pursue it, according to Sanders-Butler.

“It stopped right there,” she said.

Though she acknowledged the sales, including the ones for her own school, Sanders-Butler said she did not do so to get rich. She said she sold her health books to improve student nutrition and to fight childhood obesity.

She added that she did not solicit sales and that principals came to her because they were trying to adopt wellness programs.

She said she was stunned officials asked her this week to resign.

“I said, ‘What? Are you crazy?’ ” she said. “So I said, ‘Well, if you’ve got something on me, fire me.’ ... I’m not worried because I know I’ll be vindicated.”

Her sister, Roberts, acknowledged buying Sanders-Butler’s books but said she was unfairly targeted because the two are related. She questioned why other principals who purchased books are not getting demoted or fired as well.

“There are other people who made just as many purchases as I made,” Roberts said. “My thing is, I didn’t do anything any different from anybody else.”

Roberts added that it was common knowledge throughout the school district that schools were buying her sister’s book and believes the school district is taking action now only because the purchases have attracted media attention.

“If somebody said this is not allowable, I would never have done it,” Roberts said. “I don’t care if it was my sister.”

She also said she did not know she was being terminated, and that school officials did not tell her she would be fired if she refused to be demoted.

The school district is referring the book purchases to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which investigates and disciplines educators, and the DeKalb District Attorney’s Office.

“As the superintendent of this district, I am obligated to turn this over to the PSC and the district attorney’s office,” Tyson said.

District officials said the book sales went unnoticed for several reasons.

First, the district does not explicitly prohibit employees from profiting from the system, and that may have led to a culture fostering the book sales.

“It concerns me that there may be, or has been in the past, a norm of operations that this is OK,” Tyson said.

Second, principals are allowed to make purchases under $5,000 without much scrutiny. The purchases were made in amounts less than $5,000.

Also, the officials who wrote books listed corporations they had set up as the seller, instead of using their own names, Turk said. For example, Sanders-Butler’s corporation was Ennovy — her name spelled backward.

It took several weeks to determine how much money various schools spent on Sanders-Butler’s and Edwards’ books.

Staffers investigating the purchases scoured the district’s central office database, as well as another database that stores purchases for individual schools, Tyson said.

School officials met with the four staffers on Wednesday and informed them of the actions being taken against them.

Tyson said she is concerned there may be other instances, not yet discovered, in which other school staffers have made money off the district.

“Sitting from where I sit, I have no idea what may be out there,” she said. “But what I’m confident of is that we will deal with it as we find out.”

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Ah! It's a profit deal! Takes the pressure off!

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Also, the officials who wrote books listed corporations they had set up as the seller, instead of using their own names, Turk said. For example, Sanders-Butler’s corporation was Ennovy — her name spelled backward.


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